You would certainly be forgiven if you did not pay much attention to the release of The Call this weekend. The marketing material for the film seemed determined to highlight two actresses trending in the wrong direction: Halle Berry, who has seen her career lose momentum after her turn in the disastrous Catwoman movie, and Abigail Breslin, who is entering the awkward high school years that seem to break so many talented child actors. Like many movies within the thriller genre, the release of this film was preceded by stale casting and mediocre trailers. When the most noteworthy aspect of your film’s marketing campaign is the nuisance of Halle Berry’s introduction to the trailer, most moviegoers don’t feel they are missing out on the next big thing.
As such, many critics have already dismissed the film as a tepid thriller used to bridge the gap between awards season and the beginning of the summer blockbusters. However, look closer and you will find another in a long line of successful thrillers by director Brad Anderson, a talented filmmaker who has moved freely between film and television for the past few years. Furthermore, Anderson provides Berry with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that she is still a leading actress, while career character actor Michael Eklund is given his Andrew Robinson-esque breakout in a feature film. The Call may not aim to be more than a quality genre picture, but it falls in the category of films that you can see at your local multiplex with a large crowd and just let yourself get sucked in for a while.
Like many of the films in Anderson’s catalogue, The Call focuses on a person dealing with extraordinary guilt. Halle Berry plays Jordan Turner, a police dispatcher who is still suffering from the traumatic effects of a 911 call that ended in a murder. Fast-forward six months and Jordan has given up her headset and is focusing exclusively on training a new generation of dispatchers. However, all of that changes when she is asked to assist on a panicky 911 call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a teenage girl who has been abducted and locked in the trunk of a moving car. Now Jordan has to find a way to locate Casey before the worst experience of her life is played out all over again.
As a genre director and a craftsman, Anderson seems almost a lock to go through a “rediscovery” period later in his career. Each of his films—even The Machinist, widely considered to be his best work—are built to fit neatly within the thriller genre rather than transcend or redefine it. I am not the first to compare Brad Anderson to John Carpenter, but it is an apt comparison; both directors work with limited budgets to produce movies that are not visually flashy but feature heaps of atmosphere and tension. The Call is not intended to break new ground, nor is the story much more than an excuse for Anderson to develop a gripping game of cat-and-mouse between the LAPD and the unknown killer. The final act even goes so far as to undo a lot of the hard work done by the rest of the movie by trying to pull back the curtain on the killer’s motivation.
Still, for the most part, the movie has a kind of quiet brilliance in how it executes the search. Each of the actions taken by the characters—either Jordan back in the command center or Casey from the trunk of the car—does a remarkable job of avoiding the clichés inherent to the genre. Their plans are thwarted not by the artifice of the plot but by a realistic series of unlucky events or the well-meant intervention of bystanders. And Anderson leverages our connection to the character of Jordan to heighten the claustrophobia and desperation that Casey feels. Like Jordan, we are forced to sit aside and fret over the events taking place in the car. Anderson also demonstrates his typical skill with silence in his films, including several scenes where Jordan is forced to quietly listen in on the phone call as Casey is incapacitated or hiding her phone from discovery. These periods of silence in a thriller are far more effective than any combination of music and sound effects, and Anderson lets several key scenes build to the point of near exhaustion before giving the audience their release.
In the end, The Call lacks some of the finer points (especially in the narrative) necessary to make it a truly good movie, but there is something appealing about a second-tier thriller guided by a very sure hand. Within Anderson’s own body of work, The Call comes across as a more effective thriller than his last effort (The Vanishing on 7th Street) and shows that he is still worthy of his place as one of Showtime’s Masters of Horror. If Anderson is indeed destined to be rediscovered as a genre auteur, then he will need to continue making films like The Call in order to round out his Criterion collection box set.
But perhaps that is just the fan in me thinking aloud.
The Call opened on March 15 and is currently in theaters.